We arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka last week and spent a couple of days there organising various things for the rest of the trip before boarding the scenic train up to Jaffna.

If Colombo is chalk, Jaffna is cheese. Where Colombo is heaving and industrial, Jaffna is brightly coloured and interwoven with leafy banana and coconut trees. Where Colombo boasts glossy hotel complexes and fast food chains, Jaffna is distinctly untouristed: the only place we really saw other foreigners was at a South Indian restaurant that tops Lonely Planet’s list for northern eateries. This is my grandfather’s hometown, where cows, dogs and crows (what we have taken to calling the Holy Trinity – perhaps a little inappropriately in a town where every kilometre is marked with a Hindu temple) roam freely and wifi seems an alien concept. The pockmarks of war are still evident in the smatterings of armed police and ruined homes and the barricades we were instructed to use for our already-double locked doors, but Jaffna is slowly and surely blossoming into the charming Tamil town it once was.

We began our week here teaching English in a school in the tiny neighbourhood of Kokuvil. After a touching welcome ceremony, in which we were laden with ornate red and gold necklaces and invited to light a gas lamp, two things became clear: the English teacher couldn’t speak English, and if she couldn’t do it, the kids didn’t have a chance in hell.

But they were eager to learn. We got them going with some Simon Says, Pictionary and Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and soon taught them how to talk about their brothers and sisters, hair and eye colour, the countries of the world and the animals in Sri Lanka. I don’t want to sound too gap yah, but it was a rewarding experience, and we were all the more disappointed when it was revealed that the children have exams next week so we were only able to spend two days with them. I’m not under any illusions about the impact we had – a couple of white girls dropping in to an impoverished school for two days certainly looks like an exercise in moral kudos – but what we’re hoping to do is send some prospective gap yah-ers from our school out there in the future to stay for longer and, hopefully, make a bit more change than we could.

We spent Sunday touring the islands of Velanai and Nainativu. On the way, a rocky bus ride over a causeway so narrow that had we hit a pothole, we would’ve toppled into the lagoon, confirmed my belief that Sri Lankans are the best drivers in the world. Velanai is beautiful but deserted by war, and after a short while on the nearly empty Chaatty Beach we moved onwards to Nainativu on a sweaty, submarine-like ferry.

(Let me just take a moment to emphasise the sweaty part. It is SO hot up here. Before I even leave the guesthouse in the morning – which has a fan – I am drenched. And it’s not like we weren’t standing out before. How the locals don’t seem to sweat, even in jeans, is and will forever be a mystery to me.)

Nainativu is bigger and airier than Velanai, and stationed with a huge, rainbow-coloured Hindu temple complex called Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil. We watched cows cooling off in the shade and women praying at the temple doorway, and were guided inside to sit in rows on long rugs and be served rice and curry on a banana leaf. A little ways down the coastal road and we could watch monks praying under a baobab tree in a Buddhist temple.

I should also mention one of the most adventurous parts of our northern leg of the trip: the evening we spent in a relative’s holiday home a few kilometres from Jaffna town. It’s a gorgeous, traditional Jaffna house with an open roof in the central courtyard – but unfortunately for two thoroughbred city girls, this meant we weren’t the only critters at the party. Run at by loose chipmunks, frighted by frogs and this weird centipede thing and shocked by a scorpion in the shower (that was Abbie’s misfortune, luckily for me), we settled down to sleep with a barricade of books blocking the crack under the door, two fans blasting and having lathered ourselves in 95% DEET bug spray. If I die as a result of tonight, I told myself, at least they can say I was a fighter.

Next stop: Anuradhapura.